Al Gore yesterday left the campaign trail to return to the White House for the first time in four months, delving into Mideast crises that will send U.S. sailors home in body bags in the waning weeks of the presidential campaign.
Gore aides hoped his meeting with President Clinton in the Oval Office last night would make the candidate look presidential, although they acknowledged he had been planning to come home anyway for a family event.
The vice president and his opponent, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, steered clear of trying to score political points in the midst of twin international crises. Just as fighting intensified between Israelis and Palestinians, a suspected terrorist attack killed at least six U.S. sailors on a Navy destroyer in Yemen.
"Any terrorist should know that whoever is responsible for something like this will be met with a full and forceful and effective retaliatory response from the United States of America," the vice president said. "We will defend our country."
Mr. Bush said: "I appreciate the administration's efforts to bring calm to that troubled part of the world.
"It's time for our nation to speak with one voice," the GOP nominee added. "Take the necessary action. There must be a consequence."
Republicans said the turmoil could hurt Mr. Gore politically. They view the administration's foreign policy as a burgeoning political vulnerability.
But Democrats insist voters will rally around the Clinton-Gore team, sticking with a known quantity and shunning change as turmoil in the Middle East deepens.
Both sides agree the international flare-ups come just as Mr. Bush is demonstrating in the presidential debates that he can hold his own on foreign policy. The Texas governor's detractors had hoped the debates would expose him as lacking a mastery of world affairs.
Complicating matters for Mr. Gore is the negative impact that Middle East strife is having on the economy. Oil prices soared and stocks plummeted yesterday amid mounting worries of further unrest.
The vice president, who had planned to spend yesterday critiquing his opponent's performance in Wednesday's presidential debate, was forced to shift gears and adopt a statesmanlike stance instead.
He said the attack in Yemen is a subject "about which there is no political division anywhere in our country." He added: "I'm not going to deal with political questions in this situation."
But Gore campaign manager William Daley had no such compunction. He said such crises highlight the importance of the vice president's foreign-policy experience.
"I would assume that is a major factor that people will look at," in the Nov. 7 election, Mr. Daley said. He …